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Freedom Corner dedicated in Hill District

Memorial marks battle for civil rights

Monday, April 23, 2001

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

More than 100 marchers trudged up Centre Avenue yesterday. Splashed with a late afternoon burst of sun and warm air, they made their way toward Freedom Corner:

The place where Hill District residents drew the line on the urban renewal of the 1960s that buried much of their community.

ON THEIR WAY TO FREEDOM CORNER -- Tommar Lindsay of Penn Hills, left, and James Howell of Mount Oliver take part in the March for Freedom on Centre Avenue in the Hill District yesterday. Some 400 gathered at the intersection of Centre Avenue and Crawford Street to celebrate the dedication of a memorial at Freedom Corner, a spot central to Pittsburgh's civil rights struggle. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

The place that launched most of the city's marches seeking social justice.

The place infused by the spirit of those who gave the struggle for social and civil rights their voices, their muscle and their lives.

The 100 joined 300 others at Centre and Crawford Street, gathering in the parking lot of St. Benedict the Moor church and spilling out into the streets to celebrate the dedication of the new Freedom Corner Memorial.

A committee headed by city Councilman Sala Udin has worked for the last two years raising money for the memorial.

The ceremony included tributes to Pittsburgh's civil rights legends. The honorees, more than 100 black and white citizens, were drawn from the ranks of humanitarians, clergy, politicians, artisans and labor leaders in Pittsburgh.

There were several at the ceremony. Marion Bond Jordon and the Rev. LeRoy Patrick were given Torch of Freedom awards and went on to give the audience lessons in Pittsburgh history and race relations with their comments.

Jordon increased membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, battled housing discrimination and was a co-founder of the scholarship program, the Negro Emergency Education Drive.

A Presbyterian minister, Patrick was a leader in the battle to integrate neighborhood pools and to advocate quality education through racially balanced school curriculums.

Equality was a debt owed to African-Americans, said Patrick, because despite being subjected to contempt and virulent hatred they have shown nothing but loyalty to America.

The Williams family circles the memorial at Freedom Corner, still unfinished but stocked with symbols of heritage and unity. From left are J.D., Joseph and Darryl. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

The ceremony often resembled a family reunion, with smiles and bear hugs and cries of recognition.

Manchester residents Betty Jane Ralph, 75, and her husband, Arthur, 79, were the first to arrive for the dedication. The two veterans of the movement are now great-grandparents, but in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, each was active in movements to push for better housing, to end segregation and to create job opportunities.

Betty Ralph was so involved that whenever people saw her Downtown they looked for the protesters who they figured would be with her.

Marlene Burks of the central North Side was among the marchers. Her late father, Dr. Charles Burks, was one of the first black men to graduate from the University of Pittsburgh's medical school in 1943. Her participation was to commemorate his achievements but "also the deeds of all the African-Americans that the Freedom Corner was built to honor," she said.

Part of the purpose of the march, she said, was "to make the current generations aware of who went before them." She's hopeful that it will "reinvigorate the community."

So far, it's working for Charles Gipson, 10, of the Hill District. He knows about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and he knows that the heroes of Freedom Corner "were put in jail because people was against them having freedom."

The monument, across the street from St. Benedict, is unfinished. Yesterday, it was still muddy and uneven. Its interactive video component was not wired. Its legend markers were unstable.

Some dedication observers felt the ceremony should not have been held until a resplendent memorial could be unveiled.

Pittsburgh City Councilman Sala Udin rallies the crowd on Centre Avenue yesterday as they make their way to Freedom Corner to honor Pittsburgh's civil rights leaders. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

"It just didn't seem right," said Letitia Davis, 35, of the Hill District. "Here we have one of the most important areas of black history in Pittsburgh, and we come over here and it's not done. What's gonna happen when it is all done? Who's going to come then?"

Still, Davis couldn't help but be drawn to the bronze figure of a spiritual form that rises from the rear wall of the structure. Soaring with arms uplifted, the figure signifies hope, faith and a future of human rights triumphs.

The memorial was designed by local artist Carlos Peterson and architect Howard Graves.

And though unfinished, the rest of the circular structure is packed full of symbolism. A black polished stone from Zimbabwe is at its center, a link to black Americans' African heritage. Other circles in the memorial represent unity and prayer.

Kenneth Owens-El, a logistics chairman for the Freedom Corner dedication, said the memorial stood as a "salute to humanity and those who struggle for human rights and civil rights."

"I think [Freedom Corner] will generate cross sections and alliances. ... It will unite and heal people of good will across the board."

Staff writer Steve Levin contributed to this report.



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